The Glamorous Attire of Cabaret: Emulating Liza Minnelli and Sally Bowles

Cabaret Costume Ideas

The Kit Kat Club’s dancers straddle the line between girly and grungy. Choose light neutrals like blush pink or champagne and add a pair of sturdy heels to your ensemble.

When Liza Minnelli donned a halter top, short-shorts, derby, garters and lace-up boots in the movie version of Cabaret, she created an instant cinema icon. Here’s how you can emulate her look for your next stage performance.

What is a Cabaret?

In a nutshell, a cabaret is an interactive theatrical experience that incorporates music, dance and comedy. It is different from musical theatre because it allows performers to speak directly to the audience and use their voices in a way that would be impossible in a traditional musical.

The first cabaret, Le Chat Noir opened in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris back in 1881. It became a popular venue for poets and artists to test their new work, while audiences enjoyed a night of entertainment for the price of a few drinks.

While the genre was heavily censored in its early days, it flourished during the Weimar era in Germany. This is when famous performers like Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich brought glamour, provocation and sexuality to the world of cabaret. It is these elements that helped the show gain widespread popularity around the world and spawned the iconic movie Moulin Rouge. Cabaret is now considered its own distinct art form separate from lounge singing, musical theatre and concert and recital music.

The Iconic Liza Minnelli Look

The costumes worn in any theatrical or cinematic production shape how an audience perceives the setting, characters and overall tone. In Cabaret, the costumes of Sally Bowles and other performers at the Kit Kat Club help to define issues of gender and sexuality.

When LIFE photographer Bill Eppridge snapped this photo of Liza Minnelli, the 19-year-old daughter of Judy Garland was preparing to make her Broadway debut in Flora the Red Menace. Her costumes conflate her own sense of style with the ultra-chic big city sophisticate she plays in Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film Cabaret. Halston fashioned the outfit, which features a black velvet dress and hat that would be just as chic today.

Minnelli wore the outfit on This Is Tom Jones in 1970 and again at the London Palladium in 1972. Her bold lashes and red lips make the costume her own.

The Sally Bowles Look

Although Sally Bowles has been portrayed in many different ways since Christopher Isherwood first wrote her character in his 1937 novella, the iconic version of her came to be through Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret. The film’s widely publicized image of Liza Minnelli in slinky, black lingerie and straddling a chair (with one leg lifted as an homage to her cabaret predecessor Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel) encapsulates both Sally’s look and the tone of the movie.

Sally Bowles is a headstrong young woman who left post-World War II Britain to pursue her dream of becoming the next Clara Bow or Carole Lombard in the world of silent films. She is naive and winsome, yet she holds onto a sense of hope that trumps the bubbling horrors in Weimar Germany that will eventually make their way into Kit Kat Klub.

Dame Natasha Richardson originated the role of Sally Bowles in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1998 production of the musical, which would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. Her take on the character was a sexier, more energetic, and less tragic version of the role.

The Kit Kat Club Look

If anyone dares argue that musical theatre is mere froth and can’t say anything substantial, point them in the direction of Rebecca Frecknall’s dazzling revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 stage classic Cabaret. Now playing at London’s Playhouse Theatre, the production is set in the gilded Berlin of 1930s – a place where liberal partying is about to be rudely upended by history.

This is an epic story of a man’s search for identity and his fight to stay alive, so – unsurprisingly – the costumes have to be equally grand. Tom Scutt’s evocative designs feature neo-Baroque shapes and neo-Grecian statues bearing wheat sheaves that hint at the Kaiser’s overbearing Wilhelminism.

The full ensemble (including RWCMD graduate Callum Scott Howells as Emcee and Madeline Brewer as Sally Bowles) deliver the giddy material with energy and conviction. Isabella Byrd’s lighting design elicits swooping shadows and sudden shafts of illumination. And Julia Cheng’s rich choreography combines waacking and jazz with angular freezes, chest pumps and shimmies.

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